(This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.)
By the time Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wraps up, the roster of titular heroes has both expanded and contracted. Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) become part of the team over the course of the film, but by the closing credits, she’s heading out on her own and he has died in a touching self-sacrifice. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is fully on board as a new Guardian after several twists and turns, and Yondu’s former colleague Kraglin (Sean Gunn) seems to be considered at least an adjunct member. And then there are the five heroes from the last film, who still form the group’s core by its end.
You might expect, then, that Vol. 2 would end on a shot of the surviving ensemble, who gather in the final scene to pay tribute to their fallen comrade Yondu. At the very least, it would make sense for Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) to get the film’s final moment, since he’s the protagonist who’s just laid to rest his surrogate father Yondu and his real father Ego (Kurt Russell).
Instead, Vol. 2 eschews its growing ensemble and simply ends on an emotional shot of Rocket, the team’s small and salty raccoon mercenary voiced by Bradley Cooper. It’s a surprising choice, and when I recently sat down with director James Gunn, I asked him when and why he knew that was the way he wanted to wrap up his film.
“By the time I got to the storyboarding phase, I knew it was gonna end on that shot,” he said. “I thought about stopping on the shot before it, which was the shot of Yondu’s ashes and the arrow, but at the end of the day, so much of this movie is about Rocket to me. It’s about his inability to connect and believe that he has any meaning or significance whatsoever.”
While our heroes spent most of the first Guardians fighting with each other, this time around, they’ve all improved their attitudes — except for Rocket, that is. “He’s worse,” said Gunn.
Success does not rest easily on this tiny raccoon’s shoulders; if anything, saving the galaxy the first time around has inspired Rocket to double down on his asshole attitude. He pushes away Peter and the rest of the Guardians and pointlessly jeopardizes them in the early going by stealing some priceless space batteries from the Sovereign, a gold-skinned alien race. Yes, the Sovereign are kind of stuck-up, but Rocket is clearly the character in the wrong, and when Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) leave Rocket behind after the first act, you can’t blame them if they feel a little relief.
According to Gunn, that’s exactly why Rocket is being such a jerk: He’s so convinced that his friends will eventually give up on him that he needlessly picks fights with them, trying in vain to seize agency over that final abandonment.
“He is a character who has probably experienced the greatest amount of cruelty,” said Gunn, who hinted at Rocket’s dark backstory in the first film: He was painfully experimented on for years before he became the wisecracking, gun-toting raccoon the other Guardians know him as. “I didn’t ask to get made!” Rocket shouts in that film. “I didn’t ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over again and turned into some little monster!”
Molded by trauma, Rocket is determined to sabotage anything good about his life. “He had absolutely no love and no connection to any sort of parental unit, and when he is actually given affection by other characters, he does not know how to handle it,” said Gunn. “What we see in the movie is him rejecting that affection from other characters, in a way that no one else is quite so intense with.”
By the end of the film, though, the little raccoon’s heart has grown — if not three sizes, at least enough to let in some light. After witnessing the lengths to which the other Guardians would go for each other, and nearly coming face-to-face with the idea that his friends might all be killed, Rocket finally lets his guard down and tears up. There are no jokes. There’s just pure, earnest emotion, and that’s why Gunn wanted to end his movie with it.
“He feels a lot of guilt for everything that he’s done throughout the entire movie — the cruelty to the other characters, the stealing of the batteries, his relationship with Yondu,” said Gunn. “That little moment there, I think, is a sign for him that there’s some sort of higher purpose out there, some sort of meaning to life that I think is just hinted at. That’s when he realizes that life is something better and more grand and beautiful than what he thinks it is.”